How to Host a Sustainable Shabbat Dinner

Jews around the world can make Friday night dinner environmentally friendly.

When Hannah Weiss, a student at Columbia University’s Jewish Theological Seminary, tragically passed away almost two years ago in a plane crash, her friends started the Hannah Weiss Sustainability Team in her memory. 

“Hannah was so passionate about sustainability and being conscious about our actions, holding industries accountable, and actively trying to change policy,” her friend told Hey Alma. So, the HWST decided to team up with the Jewish Activist Collective to host seasonal sustainable Shabbat dinners. 

Sustainability is as much a global responsibility as it is a Jewish obligation. The Jewish value of tikkun olam (repairing the world) includes repairing the environment. Beyond that, concern for our climate can be categorized under pikuach nefesh, the law that preserves human life over anything else. With rising sea levels and dangerous weather extremities, many lives are at risk. 

Every Friday night, Jews around the world have the opportunity to make their weekly meals more environmentally friendly. From the foods prepared to the cutlery used to the conversations being had, there are so many ways to educate your guests about saving the planet. Take a cue from college students Jillian Leigh, Mira Kittner, Shachar Berkowitz-Regosin, Jonah Fruchtman, and Jesse Miller who’ve shared their best tips for hosting an ecologically sound Shabbat meal.

1. Bring your own cutlery. 

In lieu of requesting that your guests BYOB or bring a house gift, ask them to BYOC. By bringing their own glass, plastic, or any recyclable/reusable plates and metal flatware, you’ll save plenty of paper. (Note: In general, paper plates are not recyclable if there’s food on them.) 

At the table or in an email prior to the event, explain to guests why recycling is important: It reduces the amount of waste sent to landfills which requires a gas cleaning process that pollutes the air we breathe. Beyond that, recyclable goods can be converted into new products, reducing the need to consume natural resources through mining and forestry. 

2. Supply reusable cutlery.

If some guests forget their cutlery at home or can’t bring their own for whatever reason, distribute compostable or zero-waste (AKA reusable) cutlery. While composting is usually associated with the process of turning food scraps/kitchen waste into nutrient-rich soil (which is something you could do after preparing for Shabbat dinner!), you can also compost plates. Compostable plates are a green alternative made from materials like palm tree leaves and bamboo that will degrade quickly and turn into rich soil for planting.  

3. Distribute local farm share vegetables.

Whether you’re cooking everything yourself or going the potluck route, vegetable dishes should make use of produce from a CSA (community supported agriculture). The Corbin Hill Food Project is a direct-to-consumer farm share program that delivers fresh fruits and vegetables to low-income communities and community partners (like Columbia University, where HWST is based). These cost-effective veggies are ideal for college students on a budget who want to support local farms because they’re more sustainable and can reduce your carbon footprint created by shipping foods from elsewhere. 

4. Examine environmentalism in Judaism.

Before the sustainable dinner, the HWST committee sent all attendees a few questions to keep in mind and discuss at the table. You can use the following prompts to guide your own discussion about sustainability and Judaism: 

What responsibilities do you feel like you have to the environment as a Jewish individual?
What responsibilities do you feel like you have to the environment as part of a Jewish institution?
What tools can we use to compel our institutions to change?
In this unique historical moment (climate crisis) are ancient biblical texts useful/relevant?

5. Discuss climate change articles at dinner.

In addition to the listed questions above, appoint an insightful discussion host to lead the conversation with related articles. Some possibilities include “It’s Time For The Orthodox Community To Start Talking About Climate Change” and “The Biggest Threat To The Jewish Community Is Climate Change.” The host and other volunteers can also recite d’var Torahs (topics related to the weekly Torah portion) that connect with sustainability through biblical texts. Some examples include “Shabbat Noach: Global Climate-Healing Shabbat” delivered by Einat Kramer, founder and director of Teva Ivri’s (Jewish Nature) and “The Journey to Doing the Work” written by the president of the Jewish Climate Action Network, Rabbi Katy Z. Allen. 

Image by Paulette Wooten/Unsplash 

Bonnie Azoulay

Bonnie is a writer based in New York with works published on Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar, Coveteur, Man Repeller, Forward and more. She loves wearing fanny packs and laying in the fetal position.

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